How one teammate from Alight’s Somali Program is helping to stop the spread of the coronavirus
Hodan Abdi is a Protection Program Officer for our Somali Program. Originally from London, Hodan made a giant leap in 2019 to join the Alight team, leaving her work at a London-based homecare company to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a humanitarian. But when COVID-19 hit in March, Hodan’s work, like everyone else’s at Alight and around the world, had to evolve. Now, she’s on the frontlines of the fight to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to reach some of the most remote and vulnerable communities.
Read below for an interview with Hodan about her work, what’s happening with our Somali Program, and what gives her hope for the future.
Can you give us the big picture of what’s happening right now in the fight against COVID-19?
To be quite honest, it’s a lot! Alight programs extend across the country, and most of the program activities that we manage happen outside the city in a community called Sool. We also work across six regions, and it has been really hard for frontline staff like myself and other colleagues to deliver aid.
Part of the problem is a shortage of personal protection equipment—we don’t have enough. The Somali region as a whole doesn’t have enough, let alone getting it to the most vulnerable communities that we serve. And, because of the crisis, there’s a shortage of food and shelter. But, at the same time, we have a job to deliver. There are staff who are going face to face delivering COVID-19 messaging day in and day out, while at the same time doing their normal jobs.
What has your job been like during this time?
I work specifically with IDP (internally displaced) communities across our Somali Program areas, especially areas that have been hit by the drought and the dry season. Lately I went to a place called Dharkayn-Geenyo. It’s a small village. And these people have endured years and years of clan conflict. When we went there, we could see houses that were burnt down and the ashes were still there, you could feel the pain that they’ve endured over all those years. They don’t really have anything.
So as a humanitarian worker, when you go there it’s like you’re the hope for them. And even if you bring something small, it’s like you’re giving them the ocean. So when I visit and talk to people, I try to wear those shoes. I know I can never understand how much pain and agony they’ve felt but I can sort of walk alongside them and it makes my life better, and I can give them the sort of service that we should be providing for them.
What’s the biggest challenge of COVID-19 prevention in a place like Dharkayn-Geenyo?
Sometimes people haven’t heard anything at all about COVID-19. But for someone who is illiterate, you can’t just give them something to read. You might have one or two families that have a radio and they listen to whatever news is going around the region, but for the most part they’re completely closed off from the world. You have to be passionate about the message you’re explaining to them, and about the pandemic that’s going across the globe. It’s a challenge because many people don’t have food, or shelter, or water, or other basic life necessities. So they challenge us: how can I wash my hands when I don’t have water?
I think if we could have more access to hand sanitizers, that would really help. If we could explain to them that if you use a drop, that’s enough. Because if you tell them to wash their hands they’ll say, but I need to cook, so how could I use even that little bit of water? So we can adjust. We can do role plays and demonstrate to them, instead of washing all the time, adjust to wash as frequently as needed and use hand sanitizer instead.
What other challenges are you and the team facing right now?
The biggest challenge that we face is getting the message across, and how the message is being conveyed. Sometimes we work with community leaders to help educate people, because they’re able to go through the community channels and the camp communities. Sometimes people don’t realize how deadly the disease is.
Sometimes it’s the grassroots things like microphones on vehicles that helps the most, going around the IDP camps. It’s been really helpful to us. And rather than people coming outside we tell them to stay inside, we’ll go around and explain. That’s been successful—that’s how we’ve found out what they needed. Some people said that they didn’t have hand sanitizer or masks or gloves or medication. If they are going through the symptoms, they don’t have basic painkillers. So we can step in to help fix those problems.
What has inspired you most so far?
My favorite project kicked off just before Ramadan. People were struggling, especially within the IDP community. When we were doing assessments we realized that many people didn’t have food. So I reached out to my Alight teammates who run the Changemakers 365 program to see what we could do. We knew of 30 families in one community who needed personal protective equipment and also food for the month of Ramadan, because people would be starving throughout the whole month. We wanted to give them something to break the fast.
But instead of just those 30 families, we ended up being able to provide for all 71 families in this community. For that time, they were able to protect themselves from COVID-19, they were able to break their fast at night, and they had food for Eid.
When we were sitting down with them, some of the elderly ladies and mothers said that they felt like they were reborn. Because they never thought they would be able to have that food, let alone to get anything for COVID-19. They were even able to make small samosas and come together as a community to exchange them. And that has just boosted me up. I go home and I have food. I have a bed. But imagine somebody who doesn’t have those things and who is given the smallest thing—that leads to the biggest excitement. It changes your perspective. It made my whole Ramadan.
What is your favorite thing about your work?
There’s so many! There’s the team here. They’re like your brothers and sisters. Despite whatever stress you’re going through, you come into an office where everyone is willing to push each other and support each other.
My other favorite thing is the community when you’re conducting an assessment. People ask and wonder whether you’re going to come back. But then you go back and you give them whatever they have requested. And then seeing the smiles on their faces! Just to simply share a meal with them and sit down with them. Just having a simple conversation. Those are some of my favorite things.
What Alight value do you think most guides your own work?
For me, it’s Start with Giving. You start giving from yourself, you find out what you need to give. What is my responsibility to Alight, to the colleagues that I work with? How can I give them the best of me? And for the people we serve who depend on us, how can we give to them? It could just be listening to that specific person or individual, and you’re giving them your time. Even when you’re implementing activities, sometimes it’s important to just ask how someone is, to give them your ear. That’s sometimes one of the biggest things.
The next for me is Do the Doable. What’s the limit? How far can I push myself? Can I do the doable? Even when COVID-19 was first happening, myself and some of my colleagues came into the office to see what resources we could for those in desperate need—how could Alight be proactive in this situation? We don’t have much, but even a little can mean a lot to someone in need.
How You Can Help Hodan Battle COVID-19
Now more than ever, we need to view humanity as a whole—rather than as separate countries on a map. There are many ways you can assist our coronavirus relief efforts in refugee camps around the globe. If you have any questions about Alight or our programs, don’t hesitate to contact us.